What's at Stake
This case concerns whether a state prisoner can be barred from challenging a state court’s decision denying his right to inform the jury about relevant sentencing information, where the state court applied a novel rule to bar his ability to present the issue on post-conviction review.
In 2005, John Montenegro Cruz was convicted of murdering a Tucson police officer. Throughout his trial, Cruz argued that the jury should be informed that if they declined to impose the death penalty and imposed a life sentence instead, Cruz would be ineligible for parole. While the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Simmons v. South Carolina affords criminal defendants the constitutional right to do so, the trial judge refused to allow Cruz to inform the jury of his ineligibility for parole. The jury imposed the death penalty.
The trial judge reasoned that Simmons did not apply to Arizona’s criminal sentencing scheme. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed. When the US Supreme Court in another case held that Simmons did apply to Arizona, Cruz sought to raise that claim in post-conviction proceedings, but the Arizona courts ruled that he was barred from doing so because the US Supreme Court’s decision declaring that Simmons applied to Arizona was not a significant change in the law (even though it reversed the premise upon which Cruz’s claim had been denied).
The ACLU filed an amicus brief with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in support of Cruz at the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU argues the Arizona Supreme Court refused to apply the relevant Simmons decision to Cruz’s case based on a strange, novel application of Arizona’s procedural rules, and therefore ought not be treated as an “independent and adequate state law” basis for the decision.
In February 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Cruz, holding that the Arizona’s courts’ basis for precluding Mr. Cruz’s claim was such a novel and unforeseeable interpretation of state law that it was not “independent and adequate” and therefore did not bar federal review. Mr. Cruz is now entitled to a new sentencing hearing in Arizona with the high court’s instruction to apply Simmons.